Ancient DNA unravels Europe's genetic diversity

Oct 10, 2013

Ancient DNA recovered from a time series of skeletons in Germany spanning 4,000 years of prehistory has been used to reconstruct the first detailed genetic history of modern-day Europeans.

The study, published today in Science, reveals dramatic population changes with waves of prehistoric migration, not only from the accepted path via the Near East, but also from Western and Eastern Europe.

The research was a collaboration between the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), at the University of Adelaide, researchers from the University of Mainz, the State Heritage Museum in Halle (Germany), and National Geographic Society's Genographic Project. The teams used mitochondrial DNA (maternally inherited DNA) extracted from bone and teeth samples from 364 prehistoric human skeletons ? ten times more than previous ancient DNA studies.

"This is the largest and most detailed genetic time series of Europe yet created, allowing us to establish a complete genetic chronology," says joint-lead author Dr Wolfgang Haak of ACAD. "Focussing on this small but highly important geographic region meant we could generate a gapless record, and directly observe genetic changes in 'real-time' from 7,500 to 3,500 years ago, from the earliest farmers to the early Bronze Age."

"Our study shows that a simple mix of indigenous hunter-gatherers and the incoming Near Eastern farmers cannot explain the modern-day diversity alone," says joint-lead author Guido Brandt, PhD candidate at the University of Mainz. "The genetic results are much more complex than that. Instead, we found that two particular cultures at the brink of the Bronze Age 4,200 years ago had a marked role in the formation of Central Europe's genetic makeup."

Professor Kurt Alt (University of Mainz) says: "What is intriguing is that the genetic signals can be directly compared with the changes in material culture seen in the archaeological record. It is fascinating to see when certain cultures expanded vastly, clearly revealing interactions across very large distances." These included migrations from both Western and Eastern Europe towards the end of the Stone Age, through expanding cultures such as the Bell Beaker and the Corded Ware (named after their pots).

"This transect through time has produced a wealth of information about the genetic history of modern Europeans," says ACAD Director Professor Alan Cooper. "There was a period of stasis after farming became established and suitable areas were settled, and then sudden turnovers during less stable times or when economic factors changed, such as the increasing importance of metal ores and secondary farming products. While the genetic signal of the first farming populations becomes increasingly diluted over time, we see the original hunter-gatherers make a surprising comeback."

Dr Haak says: "None of the dynamic changes we observed could have been inferred from modern-day genetic data alone, highlighting the potential power of combining ancient DNA studies with archaeology to reconstruct human evolutionary history." The international team has been working closely on the genetic prehistory of Europeans for the past 7-8 years and is currently applying powerful new technologies to generate from the specimens.

The international team has been working closely on the genetic prehistory of Europeans for the past 7-8 years and is currently applying powerful new technologies to generate genomic data from the specimens.

Explore further: Ancient DNA reveals Europe's dynamic genetic history

More information: "Ancient DNA Reveals Key Stages in the Formation of Central European Mitochondrial Genetic Diversity," by G. Brandt et al Science, 2013.

Related Stories

DNA reveals origins of first European farmers

Nov 09, 2010

A team of international researchers led by ancient DNA experts from the University of Adelaide has resolved the longstanding issue of the origins of the people who introduced farming to Europe some 8000 years ...

Ancient teeth bacteria record disease evolution

Feb 17, 2013

DNA preserved in calcified bacteria on the teeth of ancient human skeletons has shed light on the health consequences of the evolving diet and behaviour from the Stone Age to the modern day.

A new glimpse into ancient human history

Apr 30, 2012

Analyzing DNA from four ancient skeletons and comparing it with thousands of genetic samples from living humans, a group of Scandinavian scientists reported that agriculture initially spread through Europe because farmers ...

Recommended for you

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

5 hours ago

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age

Apr 17, 2014

A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.

Roman dig 'transforms understanding' of ancient port

Apr 17, 2014

(Phys.org) —Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton have discovered a new section of the boundary wall of the ancient Roman port of Ostia, proving the city was much larger than previously ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.